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June 2 2012
AOP director Kevin Thompson is renowned for his business acumen and straight talking. OT’s Robina Moss reports
Enthusiastic and energetic, Mr Thompson’s achievements could fill pages of OT just on their own, which means he brings a unique perspective to optics. He is the founder and MD of Thompson Opticians, which consists of 25 primarily rural or ‘secondary site’ practices, including a practice in Scotland, with in-house glazing facilities and a domiciliary business. He directly employs about 80 staff.
He is also MD of Vision Developments, a property development company, and previously owned an indoor play area, crèche and day care centre. He was also previously owner and MD of a commercial waste business and even a video shop. Not that he has much time for hobbies, but he is a semi-professional musician and has a love for listed building renovation, which might explain why he feels at home in a former chapel which he converted, along with several other historic properties over the years. He gave up music for a while when his AOP workload increased but now plays in a nine piece band.
He was Mayor of his home town of Alnwick, in north Northumberland, from 1999-2000 and was a founder of Lionheart Community Radio, as well as various other trusts in sport, leisure, tourism and regeneration. With three growing sons, he is also a governor and finance chairman of a local Schools Federation, which has responsibility for four schools.
“My parents told me to try something at least once but I appear to have taken it to extremes,” he told OT with a grin. “So many people are frightened to try things nowadays unfortunately, but I don’t always get it right. It’s like people living in a small village never leaving. They don’t get to experience anything else.
“I like to look at the wider picture and draw on my experience of other things. We don’t work in a bubble but optometry can be extremely blinkered at times.”
Mr Thompson was elected to the AOP council in 2008, having already played a part in the development of the Clinical Governance Toolkit, Quality in Optometry. It’s an achievement he is particularly proud of.
“This now forms a key foundation stone for our current GOS contracts and also provides sufficient information to develop personally, or with enhanced service provision,” he explained. “Now there is a line drawn in the sand and we can move that line depending on the tides, but there are more people behind that line so it is more difficult to move it. It’s a very important tool from a Department of Health perspective. It’s a little battleground where we can agree and disagree on things, but it saves the same arguments taking place all around the country and allows us to reach a consensus for everyone.”
Mr Thompson is well respected at the AOP for his wide experience and straight talking. “I have tried to challenge in a positive way, looking for solutions to problems wherever possible,” he said. “As both an optometrist and an employer of optometrists, I try to see things from both sides of the fence, which is helpful when dealing with awkward issues.
“Life is what you make it. I don’t intend to spend five hours travelling on a train to get to a board meeting and then not say anything. If people don’t like it then that’s too bad. I am entitled to my view just like everyone else. I do have my feet on the ground though. I am a real optometrist. I’ve done my time in a darkened room, in fact more than most. I believe in emphasising that people like me are finding things tough in the optical business. It’s a tough retail market all round.
“The AOP is a complex business. We are not necessarily always fighting for the success of the profession and people must not forget our real core purpose. We are essentially a protection organisation, fighting for the individual. We are fighting for the integrity of the professional and I don’t know of anyone else who does that. It’s about allowing the professional to have some degree of autonomy and supporting them when in need.”
Mr Thompson began life at the Association working on the Professional Services Committee sub groups in various areas, including model enhanced services and assisted with the background material that several of the LOCSU generic pathways are based on. Shortly after becoming chairman of that committee, the Optical Confederation was formed and a new Joint Primary Care Committee was formed which he chaired until last year, when he moved to a new position with board responsibility for the self employed.
Internally at the AOP he is a member of both the finance and remuneration sub-groups and externally is a member of the GOS Companies Committee, as well as shared involvement in NHS choices, general compliance negotiation and transitional arrangements for GOS with the Department of Health. Recently he joined the LOCSU board as an AOP representative.
“I inadvertently got involved with proposals to form a central training unit in 2006, which I had considerable input into at the time. It is very satisfying after all this time to have been made a director,” he said.
“LOCSU is the greatest structural departure within the profession since the introduction of LOCs over 50 years ago. I am keen to see the unit provide information, training and support to the sector via LOCs, but also the tools to create generic schemes. I see the ultimate development of the unit as a key part in the future of national eye health development and, hopefully, nationwide additional services over and above GOS.”
Mr Thompson was inspired to go into optics after receiving soft contact lenses at the age of 12. They were then a new innovation and were fitted in London by a family friend who was an optometrist. “I was persuaded that optics was a good idea,” he added. “I enjoy the challenge of surviving in business now, although the market is tough at present.
“I have had five practices close in recent years and I know of other practice owners who have closed practices but there is never much made about it when a practice closes. If something closes there is a presumption of failure but there can be factors outside leading to that, for example basic costs rising, utilities, rent etc which can sometimes make a business difficult to sustain. Then there are running costs and competition. It’s the same everywhere in retail, for example the post office can be a corner shop and off licence, selling tobacco and newspapers but the days of this sort of shop are dying owing to corporate pressures.”
Mr Thompson’s family background was farming, coal and haulage but he qualified as an optometrist from City University in 1983 and bought his first practice in 1984 with his pre-reg boss in Alnwick.
He has a keen interest in training and effective communication, being a pre-reg supervisor since 1988 and formed an NVQ centre in 1996 to deliver optical receptionist training. “I rely heavily on the Internet for communication, and have been involved in several forms of communication projects and strategies with my work in other organisations,” he added.
He is a firm believer in the independent sector. “I have never really been employed by someone, except for six months as a pre reg and it’s been like that for the last 29 years,” he said. “Practitioners have been like battery hens for the last few years but it is nice to be free range instead. It is possible to have your own business. A lot of people talk about the model being broken but in truth it’s not like that and I’m not exactly sure what the model is anyway.
“Looking back, the practices I’ve acquired have been from exiting or retiring practitioners. I have seen how many patients they have seen who liked what they did. I’ve seen lots and lots of self employed practitioners who have been successful on 30 sight tests a week or maybe 20 who have all survived and they didn’t have to supplement their income by being a locum.
“In the North East 20 years ago it was extremely difficult to find professional cover. It’s changed noticeably in the last three or four years. In the mid 1990s, I was paying optometrists £100,000 a year now, on average, salaries have dropped to £39,000 in the last five years. With salaries declining, having your own business must seem more attractive.
“It’s not how things were when I first started. There were lifestyle businesses where the receptionist just made appointments and wasn’t even allowed to touch the frames. There were many brass-plate practices then with low costs in the heart of the community.
“I found that when on the local authority in market towns they are always having surveys conducted which showed that, for a small independent business to survive in retail, as a self employed businessman you need to be distinctive and quirky, with a unique selling point. A large proportion of optometric practices will survive because of their uniqueness and it doesn’t necessarily always mean you have to set your stall out on your clinical skills. If your overheads are low enough the profit from your specs can pay the overheads.
“There is a false sense of pride in the profession though. People never say if they are doing badly, they always say they are doing well. It’s a bad thing. There are basic models out there where young, qualified optometrists can make a living as an independent, but they are attracted to the bright lights in shopping centres and fancy equipment. You can’t tell me that someone working in a city centre practice isn’t working hard but promoting your own business and selling your own specs, surely that must be attractive?”
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